A New Study Produces Grim Findings
MOUNTAIN STATES – Is the snowsports industry the canary in the coalmine when it comes to the economic impact of a warming climate?
A study released last week by an economist and a climate researcher in New Hampshire says yes, and paints a grim picture looking ahead to the rest of this century. Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy of the United States concludes, “Winter as we know it is on borrowed time.”
Start with the facts: Skier visits for 2009-10 topped 59.8 million. Snowmobilers made 14.5 million day trips. Together they support an estimated $12.2 billion winter tourism industry that generates 210,000 jobs and more than $3 billion in local and federal taxes. But in poor snow winters, those numbers plummet. And with a warming climate, the likelihood of poor snow winters is increasing.
“In the many U.S. states that rely on winter tourism,” the report stated, “snow is currency and climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall, and shorter snow seasons. This spells economic devastation for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall.”
Last year, for example, brought the fourth-warmest temperatures in 115 years and the third-lowest snow totals nationwide since the start of satellite tracking in 1966. Average winter temperatures have increased 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, with minimum nighttime temperatures rising the most. Winter temperatures are expected to rise another 5-7 degrees F before the century is through.
Last year’s dry winter caused 50 percent of ski areas to open late and 48 percent to shut early. And it’s not just the ski resorts that suffered. Restaurants, lodges, bars, gas stations and grocery stores that rely on winter-sports tourism lost out as well. “The damage to the environment goes hand in hand with damage to local economies and individual businesses,” according to the study.
Using data from the National Association of Ski Areas, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate data and other sources, the report’s authors compared economic impacts of low-snow winters to those of high-snow winters between 1999 and 2010, and quantified what those living in snow country already knew anecdotally: that shorter seasons with less snow mean losses in revenue and jobs.
The difference in economic impact averaged 6-13 percent nationwide, varying from state to state. Wisconsin saw a whopping 36 percent difference in skier visits, when comparing good and bad snow years; California’s difference was only 5 percent. Colorado’s numbers showed an 8 percent change. But when you consider the size of the industry here (12 million skier visits a year – 20 percent of the nation’s total, supporting 37,000 jobs), that 8 percent drop represents 1,900 jobs and $154 million in annual revenue.
Nationwide, a poor snow year means about 13,000 fewer jobs, 15.2 million fewer skier days, the loss of $1 billion to ski resorts and $810 million in value added to the U.S. economy.
The study was commissioned by the National Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, a group of athletes and activists organized in 2007 by pro-snowboarder Jeremy Jones with the mission of lobbying for effective climate legislation.
A group from POW visited Washington, D.C., last year but was told, according to their website, that “it would be nearly impossible for Congressmen to support climate legislation without knowing the economic impact of climate change on their individual states.”
So, POW joined forces with environmental heavyweight NRDC to commission the study, authored by University of New Hampshire researchers and Ph.D. candidates Elizabeth Burakowski (of the Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science Program) and Matt Magnusson (of the Whittemore School of Business and Economics).
The study showed that 38 states benefit from winter-sports tourism. Colorado has the most riding on solid snow. California, New York, Vermont, and Utah round out the top five snow-sport-dependent states.
The study authors also pointed out that snowmaking, which the majority of downhill ski resorts rely on in tough times, could itself succumb to climate change. As nighttime temperatures continue to heat up – at a quicker pace than daytime temps – snowmaking could cease to be a viable option.
Because snowmobiling depends entirely on natural snow, the study found, a reliable snowmobile season of 50 days or more of natural snow cover could be completely eliminated by 2100.
A few other projections:
- Only four out of 14 major ski resorts will remain profitable by 2100 under a higher-emissions scenario. (The authors tested both higher- and lower-emissions scenarios, using an economic model called IMPLAN that calculates direct, indirect and induced economic impacts. The scenarios incorporate assumptions about population, energy use and technology through the end of the century.)
- The Northeast will likely have its ski season shortened by 50 percent.
- Park City, Utah, will lose all mountain snowpack by the end of the century, while Aspen will be confined to the top quarter of the mountain, under a higher-emissions scenario.
- Snow depth is expected to decline by 25 percent across the western United States and will disappear entirely at lower elevations.
“For those whose livelihood depends on a predictable winter season,” the report concludes, “such unpredictability and lack of snow can translate into a precipitous fall in revenue, an early economic indicator of what climate change looks like.”